Recently you may have heard about the Pew study of American Jewry, which revealed many interesting details and trends among Jews. I’ve been slowly digesting both the report itself and the numerous commentaries written analyzing the report and its implications.
In short, the report shows that many Jews identify strongly with Judaism and Jewish community. How they do so, however, is shifting. Some see these results as troubling (for example, declining affiliation rates have some concerned), others see these results as hopeful (while the “how” of identification is changing, the fact of identification is strong.)
I hope to reflect on the Pew study more in the coming weeks, especially as to how it may impact our Jewish community here in Olympia and the South Sound of Washington State. But I’m less troubled and more hopeful. Of course the nature of Jewish community is going to change, it has been changing over the entire course of our history. It is up to us to accept, understand and adapt. And while I don’t have data to go on, I can only think of some anecdotes that make me think we are going to be OK.
Part of the work that I do takes me every other month 60 miles west to Temple Beth Israel in Aberdeen, Washington to visit with the Jewish community there. For those readers who live locally, you will know Aberdeen as the heart of Greys Harbor County, the formerly booming industrial town which is currently economically depressed, through which we pass when headed out to the coast.
For those who don’t live locally (and those who do), you will know Aberdeen as the childhood home of Kurt Cobain, former lead singer of the 90s grunge band Nirvana. A lyric from one of Nirvana’s hit song even adorns the “Welcome to Aberdeen” sign as you enter from the east on Route 8: “Come as You Are.” Cobain’s childhood home is also currently up for sale.
For the past few years I have been going to Aberdeen every other month to teach. We have lively and engaging conversations on a whole host of topics. The Jewish community in Aberdeen is small, though it used to be bigger. Like the city itself the congregation was once booming then contracted. At one time the Jewish community of Aberdeen was larger than the Jewish community of Olympia.
The histories of these communities have always been linked. We currently have families as part of the Olympia Jewish community who originated in Aberdeen, and some families share branches of the family tree in both cities. And in the early part of the century, the three communities of Olympia, Aberdeen and Centralia to the south all build synagogues along the same blueprints and floor plan. Each of these three municipalities maintained strong Jewish communities and ties.
Over time, as demographics shifted and economic forces waxed and waned, the community of Olympia continued to grow while the other two shrank. Congregation Adath Israel in Centralia formally folded in the 1980s, and TBH absorbed some of its assets including a Torah scroll, light fixtures which now adorn our building, and the yartzeit list, which we read alongside our own memorials. Temple Beth Israel in Aberdeen still exists, and it is this community I visit regularly. The original building, however, was demolished in the 1950s to make way for a supermarket and its parking lot, and the purchase of that building funded the building of a new building which still stands and operates.
Over time as my relationship with the congregation grows, I have been called upon to serve beyond my regular teaching sessions. And this happened just recently prior to the High Holidays, when two central members of the community and regular attendees at my sessions died, and I officiated at two memorial services. Both of these women were committed to their Jewish identity and their community, and their absence is deeply felt at TBI.
Sandy Federman had been a resident of Aberdeen for the past 15 years or so, having moved out to be close to her daughter and her family. She had some recurring health problems and while her death was unexpected it was not a surprise. She always brought a vivacity to our regular gatherings with her distinctive laugh and outspoken personality. She was a child performer in her hometown of Philadelphia, and she spent some time as an actress and jazz singer before her career as a drug and alcohol counselor. Her two main communities were the Jewish community and the recovery community. Deeply scarred by her experience of anti-Semitism growing up, she embraced Judaism and all it had to offer.
One of the women who helped with the arrangements for Sandy’s service and spent time with her family was Judy Seabert. This came naturally to Judy who had a great relationship with Sandy and with everyone in the community, a real doer and organizer. It was quite a shock when I got a call not long after Sandy’s service that Judy had died suddenly of a heart attack. It was quite unexpected. Judy was a long time resident of the Aberdeen area, a teacher and an advocate for children. One of her major projects was a camp for sexually abused children, and she developed a relationship between the small synagogue and a local school, helping to fulfill needs (including shoes) of the students there. At our teaching sessions, and she always asked probing questions, had deep insight and a commitment to social justice which was evident in everything she did.
Within the span of a month, we lost both of these women, quite a blow to this small community. We’ve had two gatherings since they died, and their absence is palpable.
Would Judy and Sandy show up in a Pew study? I don’t know. But they did show up to Jewish community. They “came as they were”-bringing their identities, histories, experiences and interests with the understanding that they were a part of a community. And the role of the community is to accept them. Because of that they were connected to Jewish community and to each other.
So maybe that needs to be our message to contemporary Jews: “Come as you are.” Examining and planning around trends is important. And so is meeting the Jews who show up. And remembering that Jewish continuity is stronger than we think.
And whither the Aberdeen Jewish community? TBI is small, that is a given. It is not necessarily concerned about growth but with keeping the Jewish spirit alive in Grays Harbor. And while it continues on, the supermarket that bought and tore down the original synagogue building is going out of business.